Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles leading up to the start of trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the court prosecuting those responsible for the Feb. 14, 2005, attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The series will explore the tribunal’s creation, unsolved political assassinations and the views of victims in the run-up to trial.
BEIRUT: Defense lawyers for two Hezbollah suspects accused of complicity in the Feb 14, 2005, bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others will deliver opening statements at the long-awaited trial due to start Thursday. They will outline the beginnings of a strategy that will likely rely on contesting the telecoms evidence presented by the prosecution and questioning the affiliation of a key figure involved in the assassination.
Lawyers for Mustafa Badreddine and Hussein Oneissi will speak after the prosecution and victims address the court in the first few days of the emotionally charged trial.
Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah operative, is accused of being the “overall controller” of the attack, while Oneissi is charged with helping orchestrate an allegedly false claim of responsibility in which a man called Ahmad Abu Adass took credit for the attack on behalf of a group called “Nusra and Jihad in Greater Syria.”
It is unclear whether the defense will go into much detail in outlining their case, but the opening statements will be the first opportunity for counsel to present a narrative that challenges the prosecution’s.
The defense strategy will cast doubt on the prosecution’s account of the run-up to the attack, likely denying the provenance of the telecommunications evidence relied upon in the indictment, as well as reviving the possibility that Islamic extremists may have been involved in the Hariri assassination.
The defense may raise the prospect of the involvement of extremist groups operating in Lebanon at the time of Hariri’s assassination and their possible links to Abu Adass, the man who claimed responsibility for the attack and who disappeared a few days before the assassination, after allegedly meeting Hussein Oneissi, one of the four suspects.
The prosecution has said the suicide bomber who actually carried out the attack was not Abu Adass, citing “biological material” collected from the crime scene. His whereabouts are unknown.
At the heart of the matter is Abu Adass’ possible links to extremist networks operating in Lebanon, information that has been sought by some of the defense lawyers appointed to represent the Hezbollah suspects.
According to early Lebanese investigations cited by Detlev Mehlis, the first chief of the U.N. commission into the Hariri attack, Abu Adass was a “Wahhabi” who also met with the leadership of Jund al-Sham, a fundamentalist group, in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.
Abu Adass also worked in the summer of 2004 at a computer shop belonging to Sheikh Ahmad al-Sani, a member of a network of Al-Qaeda operatives who were arrested by Lebanese security forces less than five months before the Hariri assassination and were accused of plotting attacks against Lebanese figures and Western diplomats.
The network was headed by two men called Ahmad Mikati and Ismail al-Khatib, the alleged leader of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon.
One former investigator described the Abu Adass issue as “a whitewashing story you have never seen before or after.”
In addition to presenting their own theories, the defense will also challenge the underlying case behind the indictment itself, particularly the merits of “co-location” techniques that the prosecution relied on to tie the phones used in the assassination to the Hezbollah suspects.
With “co-location,” investigators can link a personal phone and one allegedly used to coordinate the network of assassins to the same person. They can show this by, for instance, looking at whether a personal and network phone were often used within just a few minutes of each other or activated the same cell tower.
The possibility of Israeli manipulation of telecoms data has long been an issue raised by tribunal critics, who do not believe the court has adequately explored the theory of the involvement of Hezbollah’s archenemy in the bombing.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has alleged that Israel killed Hariri. Lebanon’s permanent representative to the Security Council has argued in the past that Israel is involved in political assassinations in Lebanon, linking those attacks to its recruitment of spies in the telecoms sector in a 2011 letter to the Security Council.
Prosecutor Norman Farrell hinted in an interview last week with The Daily Star that he had considered the possibility of Israeli involvement. When asked whether he had investigated the charge, he replied that he had considered all theories of alleged involvement and was confident in his team’s reading of the evidence.
While Israel’s ability to manipulate telecoms data is known to the prosecution, they are likely unperturbed by the allegation due to the enormous scale of the call data records, which span 50 days of surveillance. While Israel may be able to manipulate some data records, it is unlikely to be able to do so on such a scale, the prosecution is likely to claim.
The defense is also likely to point out that the fact Hariri was tracked by the network does not itself mean that the team that carried out the surveillance intended to kill him, particularly since the indictment does not present a motive for assassinating the former premier.
The defense is likely to argue that surveillance of political figures is a fact of Lebanese life that does not in itself show criminal intent.
The prosecution’s position is that the sophistication and scale of the surveillance proves the intention to kill Hariri.
“These are not happenstance bystanders who happened to use the phone coincidentally at the wrong place and the wrong time to be implicated,” Prosecutor Farrell told The Daily Star last week. “There is a clear, sophisticated and orchestrated activity and it’s quite compelling when you see the overall picture.”